The March 14, 2016 traffic incident management workshop in Detroit at Comerica Park returned us to our roots. In late 1991, an awareness of the importance of traffic incident management for Metro Detroit began with a meeting at the Engineering Society of Detroit. Featured on this program were speakers from Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Highway Users Federation, the Directors of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Michigan State Police, the Executive Director of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, the Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the American Trucking Association, Metro Toronto, and the City Detroit. Committees were formed, and a Blueprint for Action, outlining the steps to be taken and the responsible parties was completed. The Blueprint for Action included recommendations to create an incident management center, revise the 48-hour limit for removing abandoned vehicles, install intermediate mile markers, expand the coverage of Detroit freeway operations technologies, encourage a towing/courtesy patrol, seek legislation to move cars from traffic lanes during an incident, and develop alternate routes.
In the mid 1990’s, MDOT installed closed circuit television cameras, dynamic message signs, advanced detectors on 150 miles of Metro Detroit freeways and a traffic operations center to monitor traffic on the system. Observing freeway traffic conditions and doing something about making the traffic better are two different things. It became apparent that the advanced technology would become more useful if shared with first responders, especially the Police. At that time the State Police Dispatch was headquartered in Northville, however, State Police recognized the benefit with having access to the MDOT freeway cameras. Utilizing the cameras, the need for fire, ambulance, and tow services could be identified even before the first police officer was on the scene. Ultimately the state police dispatch was relocated to the same building as MDOT freeway operations, and that close relationship and information sharing between agencies continues to this day.
In 2005, the FHWA’s interest in transportation systems management and operations resulted in initiating a pilot program to develop a Regional Concept of Transportation Operations in three metropolitan areas. Metro Detroit was chosen as one of the three locations for the pilot program, largely upon the strength of its existing traffic incident management partnerships. Metro stakeholders felt that this pilot program would strengthen the incident management program and broaden its scope. After a process that included 22 stakeholder interviews, Metro Detroit developed four objectives that should be pursued to improve regional transportation operations. Two of the objectives tied directly to the traffic incident management program – quick clearance of traffic incidents and improved communication to motorists. The other two related to arterial street operation – improved traffic signal timing and identifying priority corridors. To ensure that these objectives would be pursued after the development of the concept of operation, the quick clearance and communications objectives were assigned to the Traffic Incident Management Coordinating Committee. The arterial related objectives were assigned to the Arterial Traffic Management Committee. The Regional Concept of Operations won an FHWA award for Transportation Planning Excellence.
After developing the Regional Concept of Operations, including fire service into the team of responders to a traffic incident was an important next step. Closing freeway lanes can affect the other traffic on the road, and increases the danger for secondary crashes Fire service responders know the importance of protecting response scenes, no matter how many freeway lane closures are needed. Fire service responders brought attention to the importance of incident command and helped us facilitate table top exercises where different disciplines developed an understanding for the roles of other responders by participating in a mock incident. The collaborative mock exercises resulted in “I didn’t know you could do that” moments. One emergency medical technician put it best stating, “If you are doing it right, it’s like the soloists in a symphony. Everyone knows their part. They know when to get in, and they know when to get out.”
Fire first responders also helped us to recognize the relationship between freeway incidents requiring incident command and emergency management. Emergency management situations, including possible evacuations, mobilize and depend on many of the same players as major freeway incidents. .
The Metro Detroit Traffic Incident Management process has allowed us to develop relationships among the various responders There is a better understanding of what the other disciplines are trying to accomplish and how each can support each other. These relationships make the transportation system work better for all travelers and incident scenes safer for responders who recognize that shorter freeway closures lowers exposure to high speed traffic.
Although the traffic incident concept was first posed by highway officials, it benefits both freeway operation and responder safety.